How children learn to read

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By Jo Gray
on 24 February, 2017

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How do children really learn to understand what they read?

There has been a lot written recently on reading; it is a skill that all children should be entitled to master.

It is a skill that is fundamental to succeeding in school, in work, and in life, but how do children really learn to read? What are we trying to teach them?

As educators, our priority should be to teach children to read efficiently, with understanding, and with enjoyment. The DfE have had reading high on their agenda for the past few years, and rightly so, it is high on mine too. Granted, there has been some (lots!) of controversy around the 2016 Key Stage Two Reading Test, which we explored at the beginning of the academic year in our blog on improving reading outcomes. However, the fundamentals of their objective, to get every child reading, is shared by me and many other educators who are passionate about reading.

The DfE’s report, Reading: the next steps, explores how there has been rapid progress in reading since 2010, but there is still a long way to go if we are to ensure that every child is literate by the time that they leave primary school aged 11. The DfE explain that, ‘Nothing is more important in education than ensuring that every child can read well. Pupils who can read are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications, and subsequently enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career. Those who cannot will find themselves at constant disadvantage.’ Children should not be leaving primary school being illiterate and, in order for the amount of children who are illiterate to decrease, schools must ensure that reading is high on the list of improvement priorities. Teaching children to read relies on an understanding of how children learn to decode and how they learn to comprehend what they have decoded.

How do we learn to read?

There are numerous studies about the way in which children learn to read. Many discuss the importance of the child’s early environment: those experiencing a vocabulary-rich home and a childhood full of stories and nursery rhymes are more likely to succeed at reading than those in environments with limited vocabulary and less exposure to books in the formative years. Whilst this is true, reading could be compared to learning to walk and talk, in that it is a developmental process. Fumiko Hoeft, a neurophysiologist with an interest in reading and dyslexia, has undertaken numerous studies and research surrounding reading. In a recent paper, she took into account all of the aspects that have been linked to reading in the past and found one factor which consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. This was the growth of a neural highway in the brain, which allows for pathways to be developed and communicate between the different parts of the brain. Hoeft saw an increase in the volume of pathways in the left temporoparietal, which is central in phonological processing, speech, and reading.

Depending on the theorist, there are five or six stages in the developmental process of learning to read: the emerging pre-reader; the novice reader; the decoding reader; the comprehending reader; and the expert reader. There are many to choose from, but Jeanne Chall’s writing on the developmental stages of reading have been used to produce an A4 chart that summarises each stage. The chart has ages assigned to each stage, however, as with all learning, developmental growth is not linear in progression. This links back to children who come from vocabulary-rich home environments; they are more likely to be at a higher developmental stage of reading than a child whose environment lacks books and reading experiences. Therefore, the stages of reading development, are a starting point; an idea of where to begin, rather than something that is written in stone.

Over the past several years, since the Rose Review (2006) and introduction of Letters and Sounds (2007), there has been much written about the importance of synthetic phonics. It has measurably improved children’s ability to decode words. In 2012, 58% of pupils nationally reached the expected standard in the phonics check, compared to 81% in 2016. Recently, however, there has been discussion over how effective synthetic phonics is in teaching children to read. In my opinion, synthetic phonics does not teach children to be a reader. It does, however, play a substantial part in teaching children to decode words, and, whilst it isn`t an approach that suits all children, the improvement synthetic phonics has had on the amount of children who can decode words is increasing year upon year. In doing so, children are confidently progressing through the first few stages of reading development.

How do we learn to understand what we read?

As fluent readers, unless we come across a new word or a difficult concept, we are mostly unaware of the process to comprehend and make sense of what we read. This is why it is vital that educators recognise the stages of reading development, are aware of the skills needed to comprehend, and understand the importance of comprehending what we read.

The importance many schools have placed on decoding is evident; the same level of importance needs to be given to children’s ability to understand what they read. I often start reading my CPD sessions with an activity that highlights how being a confident decoder does not make you a reader. If you read the passage below, despite not understanding the content, it is likely that you will be able to read every word because of your ability to decode.

'Corandic is an emurient grof with many fribs; it granks with corite, an olg which cargs like lange. Corite grinkles several other tarances, which garkers excarp by glarcking the corite and starping it in tranker-clarped strobs.'

Now answer these questions:

  • What is corandic?
  • What does corandic grank with?
  • How do garkers excarp the tarances from the corandic?

You will have answered the questions correctly but will have no idea what the passage is actually about. This is something that we need to be aware of when teaching children to read; even though a child can confidently decode and answer simple retrieval questions, it doesn`t mean that they understand what they are reading. We can answer basic retrieval questions because of the grammatical structure of the English language. Our knowledge of grammatical structures means that we can automatically identify “corandic” as a noun, despite not knowing what it is.  The same goes for verbs like "granks" – we know it is some sort of action. Whilst we have no idea what type of action, we know it is some sort of action because of the grammatical structure the passage follows.

The problem in understanding becomes apparent when we begin to ask questions that require our ability to infer, connect ideas and offer opinions.

Look at the passage again and answer these questions:

  • Using your knowledge of emurient grofs, why is Corandic classed as this?
  • In your opinion how does corandic grank?
  • Do you agree with the author? Why/Why not?

You will see that having limited knowledge of word meaning will, eventually, impact on understanding of the text. Comprehension is not a single process, but is made up of a number of processes. The first stage in comprehending the text is to understand what the words mean. Wayne Tennent’s ‘Guiding Readers – Layers of Meaning’, refers to Irwin (1991) and the different levels of comprehending. The first is the ‘micro’ process level. The reader needs to understand each word and the context in which it is used to understand the text. Tennent explains that approximately 70 per cent of commonly used English words have more than one meaning. This has obvious connotations when children are developing their ability to read for understanding; children’s ability to infer will improve as their vocabulary improves, this is because of the increase in connections within the neurological pathways. In teaching a child to comprehend, the adult’s own pre-reading of the text is essential. Identifying vocabulary that may be unfamiliar in order to teach children any key vocabulary that they may not have come across is an essential way of helping children to understand what they are reading.

The next process that Tennent mentions is the ‘integegrative’ process level. This process is where children make links between the words and sentences; in order to understand the meaning of the whole text, we need to make links and infer information as we read each sentence. The extract below shows how this works in more detail:

‘In the bathroom, he gazed longingly at the famous and dreaded medicine cupboard.’ 

From this extract we infer that the character wants to look in the medicine cupboard because the author uses the words ‘gazed longingly.’

The text does not say why he gazed longingly at the cupboard but we infer that there is something in there that he wants and, perhaps, is not allowed. As we read on we create more connections between the sentences,

‘It was the only thing in the entire house he was forbidden to touch. He had made solemn promises to his parents about this and he wasn’t going to break them.’

We now infer that he can’t go near the medicine cupboard because he is a child and we also make connections with his obedience and loyalty to his parents; he won’t break his promise. This extract, from George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, is extremely short yet we make inferences to fill the gaps in our understanding so that what we read is coherent. If these inferences are not made, readers may miss something important within the text. If, for example, a child didn`t understand that ‘forbidden’ meant  ‘not allowed’ then the child may miss the opportunity to link it to the previous sentence, in turn, they might not be able to infer what the promise was referring to. Looking at and discussing the meaning of words within each sentence is as important as discussing the text as a whole; reading several sentences and discussing the way in which they connect will help children to understand.

Linking closely with this, is the ‘macro’ process level. Readers may produce a slightly different interpretation of what they read, the mental representation that a reader creates in their mind may vary, but their understanding of the text is the same; consistently evolving as they read. The internal dialogue that we, as competent readers, do automatically ensures that we make the links as we go. For children who are learning to comprehend, this needs to be modelled, discussed and repeatedly illustrated in different ways so that it becomes a learnt, then automatic, process when reading.

The next stage, the ‘elaborative’ process level, extends this further using previous reading experiences and knowledge to construct meaning. It takes place during, and also after, reading. The time spent on questioning and discussing a book after reading develops the ‘elaborative’ stage. It helps the overall comprehension of the text, but in order for children to become confident with this level of understanding, the teaching of reading must include higher level thinking questions that allow for the exploration of: word meanings; prediction; summarising and retrieval; inferring; meaning as a whole; comparisons with and within texts; and word choice. For this to be effective, teachers must plan for regular opportunities not only to ask these types of questions, but also to teach children the types of questions, explore what each type of question is asking, and how to answer.

The final stage in comprehending what we read is the ‘metacognitive’ process level. This is a process in which competent or expert readers check understanding as they read. Irwin calls it ‘comprehension monitoring’. Readers check their understanding as they go, by automatically asking questions and changing their mental representation as new information is revealed. This is the skill of going back to read something when you feel you have missed a piece of vital information, when you feel you may have misinterpreted something or when something doesn’t quite make sense. To help develop this as a skill, children need to see it happening, understand the purpose of it and have experience of applying the skill in their own reading.  

It is vital that a range of questions are asked within reading lessons and across the curriculum. It is even more important that children understand the type of question that is being asked, and how they should answer it. One Education has developed a range of resources for key stage one and key stage two based on the DfE’s Content Domains, taken from the test developer’s framework. (The Content Domains replaced the Assessment Focuses for Reading in 2014). The resources developed by One Education’s Literacy Team help to ensure the reading process is clear to children, consistent across the school and coherent for educators. These resources are free to download here and are taken from a huge range of resources available to all of our schools who sign up to the One Education Reading Award.

One of the most important parts of teaching children to read is not currently assessed yet it can make a huge difference to the lives of children; embedding a love of reading with all children across the school. Put simply, reading makes a reader. This is because those who see the purpose in reading are likely to improve their inference skills so that they understand what they are reading. Children who actively want to understand what they are reading are more likely to invest time in developing the skills needed to comprehend.

The choice of texts in engaging children so that they want to become a reader is extremely important, as is an educator's own knowledge of books. The demands of the curriculum doesn't always allow for this, but organisations like Peters, an educational bookshop, should be utilised for their expert knowledge; their librarians have a wealth of knowledge around books because they read every single book that they put onto the shelves. They support schools in choosing books within the shop and also online. One of the most challenging issues for teachers around reading is to engage reluctant readers; 'There's no such thing as a child who hates reading. There are only children who love reading and children who are reading the wrong books.' With that in mind, Peters have written a list of books for One Education that may engage reluctant readers, this can be downloaded here. The most important role that we, as educators, can play in the life of a child is to help them to find books that they enjoy so that they develop a life-long love of reading.

For more information on One Education's Literacy support, please contact Jo Gray on 0844 967 1111.

Comments (2)

  • Jo Gray avatar

    Jo Gray

    Thank you for your lovely feedback Sally. If you require any further information then please do not hesitate to ask :-)

  • Sally Sigmund avatar

    Sally Sigmund

    Really enjoyed reading your clear explanation about the different stages of reading. Thank you.

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